It’s too bad the title was already taken because Forever My Girl could have been called Insidious. The ways this movie creeps under its own radar to work out and spread some dangerous ideologies are astounding to me. While most mainstream straight white American romantic dramas and comedies are chock-full of vague or disguised sexism, racism and abuse narratives, Bethany Ashton Wolf’s new film drops the audience so deep into her own version of the Sunken Place that by the end I could barely see my hand in front of my face.
The film has all the surface elements of any other narrative of its kind. High school sweethearts get engaged but the man leaves the woman at the altar. He runs away, becomes a famous country singer and makes millions of fans swoon with ballads to his lost love. Circumstances force him to return to his hometown, where his former-bride-to-be still lives and raises the daughter she never told him she had by him.
Other nonsense happens, people pay lip service to all the ways Famous Country Singer hurt them, but eventually all is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after because, in films like these, it must be so. But it’s in Forever My Girl’s sickeningly specific attention to detail that it shows off what I have to hope is a catastrophic miscalculation of tone and not a slick delivery method for something more nefarious.
That would be an embedded but absolutely not understood narrative of how families and, by extension, communities shield abuse within their ranks and protect the villains from any outside harm or attention. Much is made of the “family” unit of the small Louisiana town where the action is set, and way too much is made of how hard everyone’s had it since Country Singer left them all behind. But the narratively baseless and near-instantaneous forgiveness and sweeping under the rug of his long list of sins against them all is what got my head spinning. And while you’re thinking about that, think about this: The bozo continues his cycle of self-centered emotional terrorism, hurting everyone time after time, knowing all too well that an elaborately staged gesture, an impromptu helicopter ride — when did helicopter rides become the de facto cinematic language for a Hot Date? — or driving his 7-year-old daughter home from school is all it will take for everyone to swoon again and give him a pat on the back. Open arms and clear heads, these people. Worst of all is that, by all appearances, audiences are lapping this up. Which brings me to my main point.
This is not the time to be releasing films advocating for young women to be accepting and unconditionally forgiving of this type of behavior. This is barely fiction. After a recent screening of Phantom Thread, I made the point that barely anyone in the theater was laughing at what I thought were hilarious moments, and the response I got was: “They saw themselves on screen.” That line was ringing in my head all the way through Forever My Girl as I watched in horror as the sold-out crowd cracked up throughout and even cheered at the end. I want to believe that they weren’t applauding themselves. I want to believe that they simply have horrible taste in movies.